La Mif – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Director – Fred Baillif
Writer – Fred Baillif
Stars – Charlie Areddy, Kassia Da Costa, Amandine Golay
There are times when we take cinema and television for granted. So familiar are we with visual media that we never stop to think what insights and treasures we gain from the simple act of watching. Whole new worlds and experiences drop into our laps, and such is the feeling that we are left with on viewing this wonderful work – a display of empathy, insight and acute social awareness of the lives of others.
Set in a residential care home for at-risk young girls, girls who veer in one scene from worldly-wise ingénue to childlike innocence, we are thrown into their lives and experiences. It is a roller coaster of emotion – joy, anger, rage, love and sorrow. Who knows what depths and origin stories lie behind the mask of a sullen teenager walking along the street. La Mif, a slang word for ‘family’ follows the lives of staff and occupants of a facility in an un-named area – albeit French speaking. Each girl has her assigned carer and this home, for all its managerial challenges and shortcomings is the best home they have. Staff and fellow residents fulfil the roles of parents and siblings. How dysfunctional real outside families can be is captured wonderfully when one of the more boisterous and ebullient girls, what we might call a character, is seen returning home to an icy-like anonymous uncaring home space.
Garnering awards internationally, Berlin and Zurich, the film is also remarkable for its throwing together of mostly amateurs actors. The director, himself a former social worker, uses real social workers and children in an actual care home to convey the various improvised narratives, all filmed over a two year period, with the final narrative emerging from hours of shooting. The unscripted dialogue is animated, always robust, and shall we say colourful! With repitition of key moments, we gain insights into how something appears from the perspective of another character. We follow vignettes on the different girls, all stories crying out to be told. And at the same time see how their various narratives coalesce and how they interlink as individuals and relate to the group. Underpinning the various storylines is a key story on the property manager, the wonderful Claudia Grob, who actually managed a care home for girls. Her performance is charged and informed with years of insight and empathy, as well as frustrations for the shortcomings of the systems. Touching the lives of all on-site, the staff and residents, it only emerges delicately that she too (in the narrative) has experience and stories to tell. In minding others has she failed to mind herself. Carrying out the rituals of the nuns who it seems managed the site in earlier days, we are also made aware of how a culture of pastoral care may be at odds with modern management techniques not to mention issues of health and safety and public liability.
The film deserves to be seen by anyone interested in the lives and experiences of young people and how systems of care and welfare need to be resourced and adaptable to complex and evolving situations. It is a cry from the heart and a wonderfully stimulating and engaging piece of cinema.